Throughout the long history of television, there have been many detective, doctor, lawyer, and even newspaper shows. The vast majority of these have featured hard-hitting, clever, or even cerebral male heroes as their central characters, each using his own methods to solve the murders and catch the villains. Lately, however, there’s been a decided shift in that dynamic: the female detective (not to mention the female medical examiner, the female lawyer, and the female reporter). Each of these were roles that, at one time, were exclusively male territory on television. Current shows like Castle, Bones, and The Closer all feature strong, original female leads in traditionally male roles. Specifically, you could almost say that the fairer sex has joined forces and become the new crime fighting team on television… so much so that, not long ago on TV, in 2007, ABC decided to do exactly that with Women’s Murder Club.
The success of Women’s Murder Club was that females were being used in traditional male roles. In fact, it was about damn time THAT happened. The failure came from not understanding how the source material should be used as a television series in the first place.
“The pilot we originally saw of Women’s Murder Club was radically different than the episode that was aired [as the premiere]. The original pilot was Law & Order with chicks; the redo was Sex and the City with homicide.”
–Kristin Dos Santos, critic from E! Entertainment Online
Using characters based on the books by James Patterson (1st to Die; 2nd Chance; 3rd Degree; you get the idea, it’s obviously a continuing set of novels), Women’s Murder Club features a group of women who were not only capable of catching the crooks, but of telling personal, emotional stories as well… the best of both worlds, as far as the television business was concerned. And if you’ve got a series of mystery books featuring heroines, especially ones which appeal to female viewers, why not make a series of it on television as well?
Well, here is the problem… it’s not that you’ve merely changed the sex of the traditional protagonists from male to female, or decided to tell stories from a different point of view. The problem is one of properly using the medium, not the sexuality.
It’s a great book series, turned into an OK TV show. And that’s not doing justice to the audience, let alone the stories and the characters. The series, especially on screen, deserved better.
First, some background on the actual characters: Our heroines on this show are led by San Francisco homicide detective Lindsey Boxer (played by Angie Harmon), a second-gen police detective and divorced workaholic who had become obsessed with the “Kiss-Me-Not” killer (who’s the “big-bad” nemesis through the season). Her best friends are Medical Examiner Claire Washburn (Paula Newsome), who provides the happily married perspective to the group, but also speaks as the “more responsible” voice of reason, most of the time. Lawyer Jill Bernhardt (Laura Harris) works for the D.A.’s office, and can’t seem to tell the difference between sex and love, as noted by the number and type of men she ends up with (and without). Finally, there’s the new member of the group, junior reporter Cindy Thomas (Aubrey Dollar), who’s always trying a bit too hard to be accepted by everyone and become part of “the team,” instead of realizing that “the team” is more based on the friendship of the women, and the cases are just part of the work they share…
And that’s probably where both the strength and the weakness of the series first manifested itself. ABC and the producers didn’t know whether they wanted the show to be a police procedural that happened to have an all-female cast, or be a relationship show that happened to have a crime background.
Using typical television shorthand, the characters were originally more defined by the jobs they had to perform rather than the “people” that they were. The “procedural” part of the show was paramount, as it was easier to use, say, Cindy, as “the reporter” (and a source of exposition) than it was to develop her relationship to not just one, but ALL of the women, while still telling the crime-of-the-week. Then, as the show developed, and the actors became the “voices” of their characters, the characterizations took center stage. They were definitely interesting, but then there was no time left for a proper version of that week’s mystery.
The few times when both characterization and plot seemed to jell together, somebody still got short-shrifted. With four main characters and a few continuing minor ones, plus the case of the week, and trying to involve everyone (with their different jobs and different points of view), there’s just too much in this mix. Especially for an episodic procedural-based series that had to wrap up most storylines in 43 minutes, plus commercials. Women’s Murder Club, as a TV series, still just seemed to lack something. The books, honestly, have the opportunity to do it all.
Most simply explained, books allow the reader to get inside the heads (and emotions) of all the characters, and a 300-page book will give the time necessary for both the investigation of the case, and the investigation of the women personally. If the TV presentation of Women’s Murder Club had been a bit more serialized (in other words, more book-like, as it did become nearer to the end of the run), then perhaps a better connection could have been made with a sizeable audience… but between getting a late start on a balanced storytelling path, plus its original deadly Friday night time slot, the odds were against it. Adapting a series of books into a series on television is a much different beast than just making a new show, and I’m not sure that either the producers or ABC realized that, or at least realized it in time to save the show. ABC moved the show around a bit, trying typical television wisdom to gain more exposure, but that strategy has always been a gamble for any series, as regular viewers don’t find the changes, and new viewers don’t know the character relationships that have now already been set up. In that situation, there’s no longer a “Chapter One” (or even a reprise) to set up the characters and the story.
“We decided not to take stories from the books for the show because 70 million people have read them. Se we wanted to be able to kind of surprise people.”
–Original Producer Sarah Fain
Fain and other producers were let go after the first 10 episodes of the 13 episode run (another show affected by the 2007-2008 writers’ strike). A new showrunner and production team was brought in, and changes made after the strike, including a quick wrap-up of the “Kiss-Me-Not” killer storyline; introduction of a new love interest and family relationship for Lindsey; and a new Tuesday night time slot. But with only three episodes left in the initial order, and those airing almost FOUR MONTHS after the original episodes, in a different time slot on a different night, these changes simply weren’t enough for Women’s Murder Club to make it to another season. As a television series, it never found an effective “voice”.
Yet you had a book series millions of people love… how many changes would (or even should?) you have made? There’s no easy answer, unfortunately. It all comes down to the differences of television versus books, their methods of storytelling, visuals as opposed to emotions, and simply pressures of time and finance against more lengthy presentation and depth.
There’s also one other small problem with doing a TV series based on a book series, and that is, unfortunately, age. Television wants (no, NEEDS) to appeal to a young demographic, in order to attract advertisers to pay for the commercials (and the hefty bills). Books, especially Patterson’s, have a tendency to skew… well… older, as much as I hate to say it. Women’s Murder Club actually didn’t have bad ratings (in fact, it WON its Friday night slot 9 out of 10 weeks). The problem was this: according to Variety, the average person watching Women’s Murder Club on TV, statistically, was a 57-year-old female. That is NOT the audience advertisers pay for, no matter how many of those viewers there are. While there may be enough of “that audience” to make a book series successful, it’s not going to keep a TV series on the air for any length of time. At least, not without a lot of younger people watching as well, and ABC provided no lead-in show or promotion that would encourage such a thing. Bones (on FOX) skewed much younger, despite also being based on a book series and (ostensibly) a procedural, but it emphasized the primary relationship between Bones and Booth more, and also had American Idol (the most popular show on television at the time) as its lead-in for two years–advantages Women’s Murder Club could never have hoped to compete with. And this is despite both shows having comparable total viewer numbers, just not in the same age groups.
There’s a pretty good clip, done as a promo with author James Patterson, for when the series was about to begin, showing the cast going through its paces. Although there’s no DVD release of the series, there’s still the ongoing book series, going strong, with all the advantages and none of the handicaps of the TV version. (Be aware, however, that there are some characterization differences in the books versus the TV series, as well as other changes made in the transition process).
TNT has started a new series called Rizzoli & Isles (starring Angie Harmon again, practically playing the same character), based on a book series by Tess Gerristen. It’s also about a police detective and medical examiner who “happen” to become great friends, albeit with a few more character differences than were showcased in Women’s Murder Club, and a few less actual regulars. Let’s hope it is more successful and this adaptation is more “television friendly”. At the very least, it will be interesting to compare the book and TV versions and see what has (and hasn’t) changed, especially since Rizzoli & Isles will be a cable series, and a (hopefully) different sensibility. It will also be interesting to see how different the television presentation of Rizzoli & Isles really is from what we got to see on Women’s Murder Club.
ANGIE HARMON (Lindsey Boxer) is best known as D.A. Abby Carmichael on multiple seasons of the original Law & Order. That was preceded by a lengthy gig on Baywatch Nights, plus the series C-16: FBI. Her husband, pro football player Jason Sehorn of the New York Jets, proposed to her live on The Tonight Show. She said yes, and they now have 3 children. (Oh, and she’s no relation to actor Mark Harmon. All they share is talent!)
PAULA NEWSOME (Claire Washburn) was a regular on the series The Lyon’s Den, and has guest roles on series as varied as The New Adventures of Old Christine and N.Y.P.D. Blue. She’s most recently been seen in episodes of FlashForward and Drop Dead Diva.
LAURA HARRIS (Jill Bernhardt) was originally a voice-over actress (as a regular on My Little Pony, of all things). Her on-screen career includes episodes of the second season on 24, a regular on Showtime’s Dead Like Me, and, most recently, Defying Gravity.
AUBREY DOLLAR (Cindy Thomas) has appeared on American Gothic, multiple episodes of Dawson’s Creek, and was a regular on the short-lived (and rather odd) Point Pleasant. Most recently she appeared in the revival of Cupid and the final season of Ugly Betty.
Surprisingly, there are three different computer games available based on the Women’s Murder Club (they’re primarily “hidden object” games, with a few puzzles thrown in to a mystery plot), but if you’re into that sort of thing, then go for it. One more “medium” for the stories and the characters to explore.
Don’t get me wrong here. As you can tell from this blog, I love TV. I also love to read, go to live theatre, and watch movies, and I find that each of those mediums are very different creatures, with very different requirements necessary for their storytelling. No one medium, by definition, is any better than the others, it’s just that there are certain ways that some STORIES are more effectively told, and the strengths and weaknesses of each are different. Many characters fall into the same situation, as they lend themselves best to particular modes, although some CAN effectively be translated, with the right adjustments. (See my article on Ellery Queen for such an example.) I love good stories, and I love all those mediums to tell them in. Just, please, make sure that whatever story you tell me, you tell it to me the best way… and I’ll enjoy it even more.
13 aired episodes — no unaired episodes.
First aired episode: October 12, 2007
Last aired episode: May 13, 2008
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central: Close. For most of its run, it was Friday 9/8 Central, until January 2008. The final “revamped” episodes aired four months later, on Tuesdays at 10/9 Central.
Comments and suggestions are welcomed, as usual.